Coronavirus upends JAL’s launch of budget carrier Zipair

TOKYO — Japan Airlines has decided to delay the debut of its new budget airline, Zipair Tokyo, as the new coronavirus pandemic squelches demand for air travel and upends the global aviation industry.

Zipair’s scheduled first flight between Narita Airport near Tokyo and Bangkok on May 14 will be postponed for at least one month, according to sources at JAL.

The outlook for the low-cost carrier has been seriously blighted by the worldwide spread of the deadly virus, which has forced many countries to lock down cities and introduce travel bans.

JAL may need to reconsider the future of Zipair, and its overall business strategy, which aims to power the group’s future growth by expanding its no-frills operations into medium- and long-haul flights. Zipair was created to drive this strategy.

JAL will announce the delayed launch as early as Thursday. No new date for the rollout has been set. The company is also likely to postpone the start of Zipair’s Narita-Seoul service, slated for July 1.

Zipair is a wholly owned subsidiary of JAL, which went belly-up in 2010 and was bailed out by the government. The discount airline was established in July 2018 to focus on medium- and long-distance flights between Japan and destinations in North America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Zipair will operate two Boeing 787 jets leased from JAL. The planes have already been repainted and their interiors remodeled for Zipair. The carrier has been testing the planes and facilities it will use once it is up and running.

Zipair aims to establish a solid track record in Asia before beginning service to North America in fiscal year starting April 2021.

Japan’s budget air travel market has become crowded with both Japanese and foreign players. Zipair hopes to carve out a competitive position by operating medium- and long-haul flights and offering wider seating areas, using 787s to differentiate its services from those of its rivals.

But COVID-19 has sharply reduced both domestic and international passenger traffic, forcing airlines to prune their capacity by cutting flights. With the aviation industry likely to take years to recover from the pandemic, JAL has decided there is likely to be little demand for Zipair services for the time being.

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